"The A-Team" was a successful NBC television show that ran from 1983-1987, enthralling kids with explosions, sprays of gunfire, slapstick, and a celebratory display of heroic teamwork. The show was undeniably primitive, but triumphantly charismatic, held together by diverse, exciting thespian efforts from George Peppard, Dirk Benedict, Dwight Schultz, and the one and only Mr. T. Now there's a theatrical adaptation from director Joe Carnahan, who takes recognized elements of the franchise and inflates his own twisted balloon animal of a picture, laying the violence and militaristic camaraderie on thick to bring an iconic '80s action show into the decidedly more cynical year of 2010.
Bound together by their Army Ranger discipline, John "Hannibal" Smith (Liam Neeson), "Faceman" Peck (Bradley Cooper), Bosco "B.A." Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson), and "Howling Mad" Murdock (Sharlto Copley, "District 9") are facing the end of the Iraq War, tempted by an offer from C.I.A. provocateur Lynch (Patrick Wilson) to retrieve a set of counterfeit plates held in the heart of Baghdad. When the team is betrayed by an unknown source, they're stripped of rank, dishonorably discharged, and sent to prison. Again prompted by Lynch to reclaim the plates, Hannibal masterminds four prison escapes to reunite the team, while Department of Defense lackey, and Peck's former flame, Capt. Carissa Sosa (Jessica Biel), attempts to track their movement. On the hunt for revenge and a chance to clear their names, the A-Team finds the situation more corrupted than previously imagined, kicking off a series of schemes and shootouts while trying to outwit the enemy.
Much like Michael Bay, Joe Carnahan directs with a full erection, which is put to good use guiding "The A-Team" to a series of manly highs and lows. The ultimate guy show, "A-Team" was a wonderful vessel of prime time bravado and bravery -- a cocktail Carnahan respects with his flagrantly absurd screenplay, which dwells on the cigar-chomping, bullet-bouncing, fist-first bible arranged by creators Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo. The picture isn't camp, but it winks on occasion, paying tribute to the show while forging its own identity as a potential franchise, creating a solid origin tale for the characters as they bond over beautifully executed plans and various degrees of armament.
The man behind "Narc" and "Smokin' Aces," Carnahan loves to push action and brawny behavior to the limit, and while "A-Team" is branded with a PG-13 rating, the picture does summon a nice lather of testosterone, pitting our heroes against an enemy just as highly trained (led by former teen heartthrob Brian Bloom, excellent here in a supporting role while also taking a co-screenwriting credit), making the conflict more about chest hair and penis size than the whole counterfeit plate mumbo-jumbo. The plot is extensive, twisty, and careful to make time for the gang; to his credit, Carnahan takes the material as seriously as he can, leading to a few awkward melodramatic lunges where the film loses its cool factor trying to attach some weight to the team's loss of military honor.
The script tries characterization, but the soul of "The A-Team" has always been found on the battlefield. Staging a series of chases and jailbreaks, Carnahan is like a kid on Christmas with this picture, ramping up the ridiculousness a few clicks with every new threat. The editing is overanxious, but the spirit remains, exemplified in a mid-movie corker that has the boys evading a pair of missile-happy drones while moving from a burning cargo plane to a parachuting tank. It features explosions galore, but the script keeps Hannibal's lust for preparation in full effect, delivering the subterfuge and a few hearty weapon-manufacturing montages. The ending gets carried away trying to top previous mayhem (with literal fireworks, just to be cheeky), but the majority of "A-Team" is richly chaotic and carefully silly, keeping to the show's roots.
As the titular team, the actors find their specific personality beats without much fuss, outside of some overeager expository dialogue. Neeson is a gas as Hannibal, growling his way across the frame as the leader and mastermind, careful to protect his men. Cooper is impossibly perfect as Faceman, hitting the same handsome, smirking charm Benedict pulled off effortlessly, happily playing into the team spirit of the picture. Copley is an acceptable Murdock, nailing the pilot's mania and mischief, at times overplaying his hand to Carnahan's delight. Biel is believable as the sympathetic hunter, grinding her teeth well, while also making one hell of a fashion plate to bring some sex appeal to the table. Wilson is hammy as Lynch, eventually saddling up his own movie and riding off on a series of improvisations. He's funny, but unrestrained. My only real complaint is with Jackson, who's neither an actor nor Mr. T. -- not his fault, but the UFC fighter is a mumbler, which makes B.A. come off as a buffoon, not a threat. The script gifts the bruiser with the movie's only character arc, but Jackson can't carry it, deflating a few scenes with his mush-mouthed nonsense.
"The A-Team" is presented in two versions: A Theatrical Cut (118:45) and an Extended Cut (133:33). While the lengthened film provides more pit stops for character beats, including a sizable increase in screen time for Sosa, nothing extraordinary is actually added to the picture. In fact, some fresh comedic beats, including a "Phantom of the Opera" gag from Murdock, tend to slow down the raw energy of the piece. New to the film? Stick with the Theatrical Cut.
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation holds to a rather impressive amount of detail, pulling textures from the varied environments and body trauma that fills the frame. Facial work is gracefully reinforced, showing off the nooks and crannies of these hardened men and their sweaty reactions to trouble. Costuming also supplies extra visual elements, feeling out the frayed ends and chicness of the outfits. Colors are pronounced and welcoming, with hearty blues and greens, while the opening Mexico segment supplies a rich amber look that emphasizes the heat of the location. Skintones feel natural, while shadow detail is solid, supporting evening sequences splendidly.
A roundhouse aural punch is in store for listeners, with the 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix a roaring experience that provides monumental support to the visual elements. Dialogue is never a problem here, professionally separated and smartly arranged to feed into the group dynamic, keeping the cacophony without the clutter. Low-end is forceful, giving a kick to the explosion and general chaos, rumbling along amusingly. I believe even laughs have a certain tremor to share. Directionals are active, sustaining an immersive feel as bullets whiz around and threats invade from all sides, nicely braided up with scoring cues. Interior actions, particularly the shipyard showdown climax, highlight a pleasing echoed quality that creates a believable environment. Spanish and French tracks are also included.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are offered.
"The Devil's in the Details: Inside the Action with Joe Carnahan" is an enhanced director commentary, deploying a unique system of "Plans" to breakdown the structure of the script and character participation. Carnahan is a skilled commentator, happily exploring his artistic choices and production miracles, with special attention placed on the effort of his actors. Blessed with a clenched-jaw sense of humor, the filmmaker is a piece of work (slightly fatigued too, playfully claiming this to be the 500th time he's watched the film), remaining informative and intriguingly boastful until the final frame ("If you didn't like that, you don't like movies."). Popping up along the way for your clickable enjoyment are facts and figures about the weapons and vehicles used in the film, while Carnahan breaks down the film with the help of storyboard, animatics, and BTS footage.
"Deleted Scenes" (9:05) offer a tea-sipping baddie refusing a fight with B.A., an extended hospital introduction for Murdock, Humvee chase antics with the gang, some reflection and heated cell phone encounters for Hannibal, and last-minute trickery with Lynch.
"Gag Reel" (7:19) is a standard collection of mix-em-ups from the cast and crew. Not terribly funny stuff, but worth a look to see Neeson break character and spy the giggle fits that consume Jackson.
"A-Team Theme Mash-Up Montage" (1:36) is a brief promotional clip that uses the original television theme to sell the update's big-budget antics.
"Plan of Attack" (28:39) is the film's official making-of featurette, merging a gorgeous display of BTS footage (including glimpses of screen tests, weapons training, and on-set camaraderie) with cast and crew interviews that playfully sell the motivations behind the big screen adaptation. Whatever is offered here in promotional nonsense is superbly balanced out with visual proof, detailing the filmmaking effort magnificently.
"Character Chronicles" (23:11) isolate the history and the intent of the lead roles, using interviews to explore the nature of the personalities and on-screen execution.
"Visual Effects: Before and After" (6:11) examines the considerable digital trickery needed to bring the picture to life. From locations to explosion, the secrets are revealed here, a few surprising ones too, urged along through commentary by visual effects supervisor James E. Price.
And a Theatrical Trailer is included.
Tributes are here to enjoy, including a return of a classic GMC Vandura, but it's only offered a fleeting cameo. "The A-Team" dances on a fine line of homage and invention, but what Carnahan has created here should tickle fans and newcomers alike. It's fast, funny, and ripe with bullet hits, adding a swell kick to an anemic moviegoing year.